Maine Schools in Focus: What Is a Reasonable ‘Leadership Load’ For Our Principals?
Author: J. M. Wilhelm
State and local expectations for school staffing levels frequently diverge. The state’s Essential Program and Services (EPS) system sets student-to-staff ratios for funding purposes, but local goals or budget considerations often dictate a different standard. For example, the PreK-to-5 EPS ratio sets the state expectation at 17 students to one teacher. But school districts establish their own class size guidelines, often expecting more students per teacher in the upper grades or fewer students in classrooms with unusually diverse instructional challenges.
Similar differences plague the assignment of principals to schools. EPS sets the PreK-to-5 student-to-principal ratio at 305 students to one principal. In doing so, it ignores the numbers of staff our principals actually need to lead and supervise. When all the responsibilities of principalship are considered, local districts often surpass EPS recommendations. What is an appropriate “leadership load” for our principals?
Organizational theorists refer to a manager’s staff ratio as their “span of control.” A narrow span sees fewer subordinates per manager; a broader span requires more. This concept, first described by Luther Gluck in 1937, has come to be seen as a significant determinant of effective management. It theorizes that workers in complex organizations demanding diverse skills need greater oversight (a narrow span) than those whose jobs are less complicated. Likewise, organizations experiencing greater change and staff training need more leadership (a narrower span) than stable organizations where the work is more routine. Since 1937, the span of control concept has come to include many factors. In the business world, studies have determined an optimal manager-to-staff ratio of 1-to-10 (Weiss).
How does this translate to the public education arena? Maine principals are expected to supervise two-and-a-half times as many staff as their business counterparts. Calculating a PreK-5 principal’s staff load from EPS staffing expectations for a 305 student population, a baseline expectation for a principal’s span of control is 1-to-24.7 staff. This does not include personnel like custodians, bus drivers and kitchen workers for which the principal is at least partially accountable. The state expectation for our principals, that is, defies best practice in many U.S. business settings.
The realities faced by many principals, however, often widen their spans of control beyond manageable limits. To wit:
- Surveys of all Maine principals from 1997 to 2011 reveal increases in supervisory responsibilities from an average of 29 staff in 1997 to 53 in 2011 (Maine Principal Study). These almost certainly include teaching and auxiliary staff, some of whom are only tangentially supervised by the principal.
- State reports show an increase in numbers of teachers per principal from 10.5 in 1960 to 19.6 in 2000 (Donaldson, 2014).
- When auxiliary instructional positions like educational technicians are included with teachers, an average Maine principal’s supervisory load was 25.6 instructional staff in 2000 (MDOE).
Applying the “span of control” principle, this data would suggest that the work of principals and teachers has simplified, teacher and student churn is minimal, staff development needs and school goals are few, and student populations are less diverse.
But the converse is true. The role of the school principal has grown more demanding as staff-management ratios have increased. A visit to a Maine elementary school will find multiple school goals, state legislated and locally prescribed, and a more ethnically and culturally complex student population. Teachers will be writing learning plans for each student, instituting new programs, assessing student progress in various ways, and teaching multiple curricula. Our schools have added specialists and programs to expand post-secondary options, to ensure safety, and to adopt healthy life skills. Mandates require closer and more sophisticated evaluations of teaching staff by principals. All of this warrants greater administrative oversight, not less; it calls for a narrower span of control, not a wider one.
Clearly, Maine’s supervisory expectations for principals jeopardize their success (a conclusion reinforced by the recent Legislative Task Force on School Leadership). As we have ramped up hopes and demands on our schools, we have not reevaluated our expectations of leaders to keep pace. What could be done?
1. Policy leaders and decision makers must take into account the impacts that their reforms have on the leaders who must carry them out. Do principals have the time, energy, relationships with staff, and skills required to achieve them? Implementation plans must include training and support for leadership.
2. School leaders are not created equal and the skill set required is diverse. Instructional improvement and personalized learning are now essential competencies. Ongoing professional development for leaders must be supported at both the state and local levels.
3. A careful assessment of the leadership requirements of Maine’s principalships must be undertaken soon. What is required to succeed in 2017? What are appropriate staff-principal ratios? What other leadership roles are necessary in our schools? An adjustment to the EPS formula could incentivize greater management oversight and inspire leadership to better ensure school effectiveness.
Sources: Weiss, Dyanne, “Ideal ratios of managers to staff,” yourbusiness.azcentral.com;
MDOE (maine.gov/doe/dataresources/warehouse.html); Donaldson, G., From schoolhouse to schooling system: Maine’s public education in the 20th century (Maineauthorspublishing, 2014); Task Force on Leadership (State of Maine Legislature, Feb. 2016)
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